Canada decided last week to contribute CF-18 fighter aircraft, surveillance and refuelling planes, and advisers to the U.S.-led coalition bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Was this the right decision?
Ideally, foreign policy should first seek to define the national interest, and then to protect and pursue it. On this basis, Canada got it about right: the overall thrust of its decision is sound
Prime Minister Harper’s insistence that Canada’s involvement is one of counter-terrorism is consistent with President Obama’s clear understanding that the military component of the coalition’s actions can only act as a stopgap.
Canada’s only core interest with regard to the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Iraq and Syria is homeland security. Its main preoccupation is to protect against the possibility that Canadians, having learned skills in Iraq or Syria, could return home and either launch attacks or train others to do so, or that Canadian ‘lone wolves’ inspired by IS could launch attacks on home soil.
Canada’s second interest, important but not vital, is at the level of alliance management: it is, generally speaking, essential for Canada to be—and to be perceived as—a good ally and partner.
Third, the rise of IS also impacts Canada’s regional interests—a combination of secondary priorities that are important but far from vital for the country’s security and prosperity. The most prominent of those is the stability of Canada’s regional allies (i.e. Turkey) and partners, especially Jordan and Israel. IS is a major threat for them; it is therefore in Canada’s interest to contribute to their defence. Trade is a limited concern, given that Canada’s imports and exports to and from Syria and Iraq are marginal. At a more abstract level, Canada also has an interest in supporting democratic development in the Middle East. This interest, often prioritized much more at the rhetorical than at the substantial level, has rarely met with success in the Middle East.
Finally, successive Canadian governments have assessed that alleviating humanitarian suffering is also a priority. This interest has also come under growing pressure in the wake of growing instability in Syria and Iraq.
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Given these three-tiered interests, Canada’s response so far to the rise of IS has been broadly appropriate.
The threat to homeland security is real, though it should not be overstated. According to the government, a few dozen Canadians have travelled to Iraq or Syria to fight or train with IS or other extremist groups. Some of those have been or will be killed in theatre, while a majority will return home without ill intentions. This leaves a handful who could attempt attacks—though assessing which ones among the dozen returnees harbour nefarious intentions is hugely challenging for security agencies. Will joining U.S.-led airstrikes increase this threat? It may, but not joining airstrikes would not have sheltered Canada from the possibility of IS-inspired attacks.
The government understands this threat: the mostly-ignored second part of Prime Minister Harper’s speech to the House of Commons last Friday detailed the measures his administration is taking to counter this threat. Further detail should be provided by testimony on Wednesday to the Public Safety and National Security Committee by Public Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, alongside CSIS head Michel Coulombe and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.
Second, Canada’s actions put it among the top contributors to the U.S.-led coalition. Crucially, the alliance-management interest is not achieved specifically because Canada is sending CF-18s; what the U.S. wants is a broad coalition in which partners and allies provide real, not symbolic, support. Ottawa would have equally demonstrated its genuine commitment by providing assets other than fighter aircraft. What Washington needs—and has so far mostly obtained, in part thanks to Canada—is the international and regional legitimacy that come from a broad and deep coalition.
This raises a corollary question: is being a good ally in line with Canada’s regional interests? Is U.S. policy, in other words, consistent with Canadian interests?
The emerging Obama strategy is based on three pillars. Militarily, the U.S.-led coalition seeks to stop IS’s expansion and to roll it back. Such a containment effort will be far from sufficient to defeat IS, but is immediately necessary given the acute threat that the high likelihood of continued IS expansion represents.
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The second pillar is to refrain from sending ground combat troops; instead, the U.S. expects local forces to assume the bulk of the responsibility for combatting IS. Washington is therefore increasing its efforts to build these local forces’ capabilities in both Iraq and Syria.
The third, and by far trickiest, pillar rests on the understanding that IS is not the cause of Iraq’s and Syria’s problems but a symptom, the consequence of the broken political process in both countries. Militarily defeating IS—in itself a long-term endeavour with no guarantee of success—would therefore only mask (and not solve) the deep structural problems at the source of its emergence. That is why the U.S. is pressuring the Iraqi elite to launch a genuine process of national reconciliation—and why absent a peace process in Syria, IS cannot be defeated.
Contributing to this U.S. strategy combining containment with support for local forces and political engagement is consistent with Canada’s regional interests. It is, in particular, the optimal approach to protect regional partners from the imminent threat posed by IS expansion. It is also in line with long-standing Canadian policies, such as its extensive security and humanitarian support to Jordan. Canada also supports the U.S. desire to avoid entanglement by refusing to send ground combat troops.
In addition, Prime Minister Harper’s insistence that Canada’s involvement is one of counter-terrorism is consistent with President Obama’s clear understanding that the military component of the coalition’s actions can only act as a stopgap. IS will ultimately be defeated by political, not military means.